With the semester starting in less than three weeks, some student workers are raising concerns about their safety this fall when students return to campus.
Among these workers are residential computing consultants, or RCCs, who provide technology support in residence halls and are compensated through free on-campus housing. Students are employed through ResNET, which delivers "on-site IT support, education and the technology infrastructure for the UNC-Chapel Hill residential communities," according to the University's Information Technology Services website.
On July 13, incoming fall RCCs received an email from ResNET Director Lee Hyde, which included HR documents required for employment classification.
One of the documents that RCCs were asked to sign included a waiver, which designated them as “unpaid interns” under Carolina Housing and released UNC from any liability or claim with regard to injury, illness or death that may result from their service.
UNC Media Relations said in an email that the waiver has been used for volunteer positions across the University for years and by Carolina Housing since fall 2019. The form is unrelated to COVID-19 and is used to differentiate RCCs as student workers who are provided with a room credit as opposed to employees who are provided with monetary compensation, according to the email.
A returning RCC who asked to remain anonymous due to future employment concerns said she believes the waiver was implemented last year to make it easier for RCCs to get other on-campus jobs.
She said before the waiver was implemented, an RCC position counted as 20 hours of work per week, which prevented students from finding other on-campus jobs because they were not allowed to work more than 40 hours per week.
The waiver solved this problem by designating RCCs as unpaid interns, she said.
Some RCCs still have concerns about the waiver, as the pandemic has changed the circumstances of their position.
Another returning RCC who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns about future employment said they found it upsetting that RCCs receive none of the benefits of being an employee, yet have all the liability of a volunteer or an intern.
“I just think it’s kind of absurd that in this waiver in particular, UNC is sidestepping any obligation or liability for our safety and giving us this status,” they said. “The University obviously considers our work essential because they’re asking us to come back in the middle of a global health crisis. They obviously think our work is valuable, but not enough to take responsibility for us.”
They said ResNET is expecting RCCs to staff a new “gaming arena” in Craige Residence Hall.
RCCs received a draft copy from ResNET outlining the adjustments that will be made to the arena to prevent COVID-19 spread, which include reduced capacity and operational times, cleaning procedures and signage.
UNC Media Relations said that RCCs will be following the same guidelines as other employees at the University as outlined in the Carolina Roadmap for Fall 2020.
The returning RCC said they think the gaming arena should not be opened, as conditions have changed and the risks of staffing the arena have increased.
“In my opinion, the acceptable number of workers who will be put at risk of dying of COVID so that some kids can play Fortnite is zero,” they said.
They said RCCs were told in the spring they would receive compensation for their housing being cut short when campus residence halls closed in March.
UNC Media Relations said in an email that all RCCs were compensated for their lost room credits by July 16. Media Relations said that because RCCs are provided with a room credit as opposed to monetary compensation for their work as part of their role, it took more time to determine the appropriate method for compensation of lost room credits.
The other returning RCC said the delay in receiving compensation could have left some RCCs scrambling to find and pay for housing.
“If it took us this long to get a refund this time, the idea that we’d get them next semester is kind of ludicrous,” she said.
She said she was told that if a technology problem could not be resolved over phone or email, RCCs would be expected to go to a client’s personal space to assist them.
Her biggest concern is being required to possibly expose herself to COVID-19 when visiting someone’s living space, she said.
Ash Dos Santos, a rising senior, planned on returning to her position as an RCC this year, but decided not to because of COVID-19 related concerns.
She said she was worried about spreading the virus if she had to visit multiple different living spaces to assist with technology, and receiving the waiver heightened her concerns.
“I have an elderly grandma who has dementia and is very high risk,” she said. “If I go and visit her, I could kill her. That was a risk I was not willing to take”
Dos Santos said leaving her position was an extremely difficult decision. She said she believes ResNET management cares about their workers and said they were understanding about her decision to leave.
“I feel bad because I want to be in ResNET,” she said. “I love ResNET. It’s one of my favorite programs, but also, I want to make sure my family’s safe.”
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